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What “Meat Offered to Idols” Means Today

Marcus Aurelius offers sacrifice with head covered, attended by half-naked slave, child slave, slave musician, and hungry male g

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell” (Acts 15:28–29).

A Social, Transactional Religion 

Roman religion was not primarily ethical. Despite relying upon a huge, chaotic pantheon of pagan gods and goddesses, if morality was in question, the Romans turned to philosophers, not priests. Each family had a household spirit or Lar Familiaris to be negotiated with, and every Roman city had a plethora of temples. The gods needed to be attended to so that they would tip chance and circumstance in the favor of the Romans. This covenantal relationship was expressed as do ut des which means “I give so that you give.” At its core, Roman religion was transactional. Chance was attributed to the will of the gods. Sacrifice and worship were ways to avert a god’s anger, prevent harm, or gain advantage in farming, health, business, love affairs, or wars. Or just an excuse to have a good steak meal with your friends.

In fact, religion was at the heart of social life. Historian Ramsey McMullen writes,

For most people, to have a good time with their friends involved some contact with a god who served as guest of honor, as master of ceremonies, or as host in the porticoes or flowering-shaded grounds of his [the god’s] own dwelling [shrine or temple]. For most people, meat was a thing never eaten and wine to surfeit never drunk save as some religious setting permitted. There existed—it is no great exaggeration to say it of all but the fairly rich—no formal social life in the world [of that time]. . . that was entirely secular.

In addition to exclusive clubs, cults, and rites, almost all the gods were worshiped with sacrifices of food. Every temple had a sacrificial altar, and some free-standing altars existed in all towns. The more important the god, or the more important the worshiper, the bigger the animal slaughtered. Besides sacrificial altars, temples also had kitchens and banqueting rooms to utilize the “meat offered to idols” (Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 10). Pagan temple banquets were common and functioned as restaurants.  

Blood sacrifice victims were usually domestic animals: pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, or occasionally dogs. Parts of the animal were burned on the altar, and the participants would then feast on the remaining meat. At public festivals, this afforded poorer citizens the rare opportunity to eat meat. For the common individual, the only red meat available throughout the year would be the “meat offered to idols” found at temple restaurants and sacrificial celebrations like the Elysian Mysteries; the Mithraic meat, blood, bread, and wine; Bacchus orgies; or Isis festivals. 

Idol Meat

The Jewish and Christos religions rejected the pagan pantheon and practices. Despite a general openness to foreign gods, the Romans viewed monotheism with suspicion. McMullen writes, “Rome’s Empire. . . was completely tolerant in heaven as on earth. Perhaps not quite completely. Jews off and on, Christians off and on. . . fell under ban. . .” Why? Because they were “atheists,” worshiping just one God instead of the forty, fifty, or sixty acknowledged by the Romans. 

Jewish Christians had informed Gentile converts that the Holy Spirit didn’t want to burden them, but that abstaining from “food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” was still advised (Acts 15:29).

Half a century later, John the Revelator envisioned Jesus giving advice to seven middle-eastern churches, now all found in Turkey. Revelation 2:14, 20 states, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.” And then, “Jezebel. . . by her teaching. . . misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (emphasis added).

On two separate occasions, Christian Gentiles were given a paired warning against eating meat offered in pagan temples and engaging in sexual immorality. This warning had another purpose as well, relieving the expanding Gentile Christian church from the enforced Jewish practice of male circumcision. 

As each year passed, fewer Christos followers were ethnically Jewish, and this accelerated after 70 AD as they all lived in a Roman world. Jesus’ apostles may not have been eating pork, but they all ate fish, lamb, and occasionally beef. So why did they even care about “meat offered to idols?” 

An Exploitative Culture

The Roman world was defined by power relationships with the pater familias at the top. Females, even if not enslaved as the property of a master, were still not free from the control of the men in their lives. Girls and women had no vote or political standing, received little to no education, and could not own or keep property. Markus Milligan, managing editor at Heritage Daily, details the ways these hierarchies were abused, writing, “A Roman Citizen was allowed to exploit his own slaves for sex, no matter the age or circumstances of birth. A freeborn Roman could even rape, torture and abuse their property without charge or prosecution. A slave had no civil protection or authority pertaining to their body; in essence the body of a slave was to be used to appease the sexual appetites of their Dominus (Master, Lord).” 

Addressing the cultural pervasiveness of these standards, Strabo, the Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, writes, “The temple of Aphrodite in Corinth was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves—prostitutes—whom both free men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these temple-prostitutes that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money.”

Were these not greater moral and intellectual problems for Jesus than “food sacrificed to idols?” How were serious evil doers—heretics worth comparison to Jezebel, Balaam, Nicolaus, and even Satan himself—an equivalent danger to where a piece of meat came from?

Eidolothton (Part of an Idolatrous Offering)

Eidolothuton is the Greek compound of eidolon and thuo. Eidolon meant an “image,” or “likeness,” and originally even suggested an apparition of the departed. In the New Testament, the word is used for an “image” of a heathen god, as the English “idol” attests. Thuo means to kill as a sacrifice, upon an altar with smoke. When the Jerusalem council advised Gentile Christians to “stay away from” and “keep distant from” eidolothuton, it may have been a literal—not just a figurative—distancing. It was a warning to not frequent places with images of a heathen gods, an altar on which animals were sacrificed, or a banqueting hall where men feasted, drank, and caroused.

So why worry about the actual eating of temple-sacrificed mutton or beef? In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul responds to eidolothuton. He recognizes that there is only one God and that the many Greek, Roman, and Pagan “gods” are insignificant to the Christian deity (1 Corinthians 8:4–6). However, Paul does not stop there. In 1 Corinthians 10:6–9, he links eidolothuton with the seduction of the Israelites into rebellion by the advice of corrupt Balaam. He recalls the steep consequences when the Jewish men were enticed by Moabite women and “sat down to eat and drink and got up to play.” 

Although Paul acknowledges that “everything sold in the meat market” might be acceptable to eat—regardless of where it was sacrificed—he also acknowledges that such eating and drinking habits in the past led to orgies with the Moabite women. He voiced a deeper, underlying concern linking indiscriminate sexual activity and sacrificed meat in an exploitative context. 

Not About Meat

Some might think that “meat offered to idols” was only about the literal idols and meat of the past. We are 2,000 years away from that society. What does the principle behind this biblical moral mandate mean to us today?

In reality, these biblical warnings likely weren't about the meat and weren’t really about the fake gods honored by the meat either. They were more likely about the half-naked slave men slaughtering the meat, the overheated slave women cooking the meat, and the slave girls and boys being abused and exploited by the lusts of their drunken male overlords. It was more likely about female subservience, blind nationalism, and chronic systemic exploitation. 

Both Paul and Jesus warn against these exploitative actions by Old Testament men in Greco-Roman society. In the Roman context, “meat offered to idols” was about exclusive men’s clubs and the way they took advantage of the “lower classes” through economic exploitation and physical and sexual abuse—of immigrants, slaves, children, and women. 

In modern idiom, “meat offered to idols” is about male headship, economic privilege, female subordination, the Me-Too movement, and the Black Lives Matter focus on power relationships. It is about telling the true story of racism by white people over brown cultures when educating our children. I suspect it is about the ordination of only men, about churches without female elders, about conferences, unions, divisions, and General Conference presidents being all male. Jesus is not going to be impressed when men claim that feminism, Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, and Me-Too Movements are all “socialism,” “communism,” “lack of respect for your country,” or “just politics.” 

“Meat offered to idols” is about corrupt social institutions pandering at the expense of the weaker and less privileged. The wealthy and privileged of one gender, one race, one nationality, one kind of sexuality, and one man-made creed thrive at the expense of all others. “Meat offered to idols” stands for the crime of social exploitation which in heaven’s sight carries the same seriousness as fornication. Now that is something more than a steak or a hamburger to chew on.

 


John B. “Jack” Hoehn, MD, is a retired physician and Adventist missionary who has written Adventist Tomorrow—Fresh Ideas While Waiting for Jesus (2021), available on Amazon  in paperback or Kindle e-book versions. His book is the best-selling item published by the Adventist Today Foundation and has been reviewed by the Spectrum book club.  

Title image: Marcus Aurelius offers sacrifice with head covered, attended by half-naked slave, child slave, slave musician, and hungry male guests. Photo by Matthias Kabel. Creative Commons ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED) License

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